They were in New York City, sipping a second bottle of wine, celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary, thinking about time.
"We started talking about what we wanted to do," said Mike Guthrie, 69, recalling that night in 2009 alongside his wife, Donna. "You start thinking that way when you get to be 60-something ..."
The Colorado Springs couple had thought about a far-flung trip of the sort their friends were taking - Europe maybe, or Asia. They'd been to a dozen or so countries together, but there in the Big Apple they considered their own backyard.
"You know," Donna told her husband, "there's a lot of America we haven't seen."
So began their mission to see all 59 national parks, which they had access to with the purchase of $10 senior passes. So began their attempt to experience the lands worthy of the government's highest level of protection, to hike and camp in places that would challenge the savviest and fittest of adventurers, to do it before they reached grew older than 70.
Seven years later, on June 11, surrounded by family at the Great Smoky Mountains, the Guthries celebrated the completion of their mission in this centennial year of the National Park Service.
"I'm not sure what we're gonna do with all these yet," Donna, 70, said while sifting through a box of commemorative pins from each park at their home. "Another project!"
One of her favorite projects came at age 50, when she got the idea for her and Mike to walk 5 miles somewhere in each of the 50 states.
They love projects. There's something about the process, "about having some objective in mind," Mike said, and seeing it through.
"And there has to be rules," Donna said.
The latest set of rules: Their previous 10 visits to national parks didn't count - they had to do those again; they had to get their picture taken at each park entrance; they had to meet with a ranger at each park, to learn and get advice; and they had to cover at least 5 miles at each park.
This last part they did in different ways: by hiking the forest of Oregon's Crater Lake beside the blue water against a blue sky; by cycling on the Everglades' sandy trails through pines and marshes; by riding mules along the rims and rivers of the Grand Canyon; by snorkeling among turtles and vibrant fish at the Virgin Islands.
It wasn't always pleasant. There was, for instance, the night in Alaska's barren Kobuk Valley, among the sand dunes where clouds of mosquitoes are quick to welcome human visitors. The Guthries' tent became bloody with all the swatting they did.
"We can get through 24 hours of anything," Mike told his wife of 43 years.
No, they were no longer the 20-somethings of decades earlier. He was long-haired then, in the middle of an internship in Denver, on his career path as a health care executive. She was a self-described hippie, an aspiring writer. They met thinking it would just be an afternoon of coffee. They were married the next year.
Two children came later.
Now, the Guthries sit in an empty nest, their cottage-style house neatly arranged with books and artistic birdhouses they've collected over the years. There's a wall scattered with quotes of wisdom, one from Emily Dickinson - "The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience" - and one from tennis player Mary Browne - "You never grow old until you've lost all your marvels."
There's a place for their grandson's toys.
"There are different stages in marriage. Our kids are grown now; now we're into the grandparent stage," Donna said before pausing. "I think this has been really fun for us as a couple."
More fun is planned: In September, they're expecting 112 for a party at Rocky Mountain National Park, where they started their mission seven years ago. Friends will be wearing the ball caps that the Guthries had specially made and sent to those who accepted their challenge to visit a national park.
For the Guthries, part of this project was about getting others to share in their experience, to feel what they felt. The beauty sometimes made them cry.
Over the mission, they were inspired to hear from strangers who said they wanted to do the same thing. They were inspired by a couple they met hiking around Zion's red canyons and never-ending green valley, a couple older than them who they talked with for a while.
"Then they wandered off, off they went," Mike said. "We saw them in the distance, still going."
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332